- Reports find more than 3 percent of Tinigua’s forest cover was cleared between February and April 2018. Officials worry the situation will worsen in the near future.
- The Secretary of Environment of the Colombian region of Meta says that the government and other entities are preparing combat deforestation.
- Tinigua Park is the only place in Colombia that connects the Orinoquía, the Andes and the Amazon. The park serves as a corridor for animals such as jaguars, mountain lions and brown woolly monkeys.
“Territories are like books: they can be in front of you, but if you do not read them you will never understand them,” said Juan Carlos Clavijo about Tinigua National Natural Park, one of Colombia’s protected areas located between the municipalities of La Uribe and La Macarena in the Meta region. This year, Tinigua took center stage when the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (also known by its acronym in Spanish, Ideam) revealed that the park lost more than 5,600 hectares of its tree cover to deforestation activities in the first three months of 2018.
Clavijo, who worked in that national park for 10 years, and served as chief for three of them, believes that Tinigua has never been granted the importance it deserves. And he said maybe that is why only now, when the damage seems irreparable, that all eyes are on this territory. Tinigua is part of La Macarena Special Management Area (also known by its acronym in Spanish, AMEM), a reserve created in 1989 that also includes three other national natural parks: Cordillera de Los Picachos, Sierra de La Macarena and Sumapaz.
In addition to housing many species, Tinigua also serves as a refuge for wildlife from ecosystems surrounding the park. There, one can find animals such as the jaguar (Panthera onca), long-tailed otter (Lontra longicaudis), mountain lion (Puma concolor), brown woolly monkey (Lagothrix lagotricha), spider monkey (Ateles belzebuth), three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus), tapir (Tapirus terrestris), collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu), curassows (Crax alector, Mitu salvini, Crax tomentosa), common squirrel monkey (Saimiri sciureus), Orinoco crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius), yellow-footed tortoise (Geochelone denticulata), scarlet macaw (Ara macao), military macaw (Ara militaris) and the blue-and-yellow macaw (Ara ararauna). This park, comprising more than 2,150 square kilometers (830 square miles), is responsible for uniting the paramo – alpine ecosystems that exist above the tree line but below the permanent snowline – with the region’s high Andean forests and humid rainforests. These characteristics make it the only area in the country that connects the Orinoquía (a Colombian natural region in the Orinoco River watershed), the Andes and the Amazon.
Edgar Olaya, regional director of the Orinoquía National Natural Park, says that Tinigua offers unique ecosystem services thanks to its two most important rivers: the Guayabero and the Duda, which are tributaries of one of the sources of the Orinoco River – one of the most important rivers in South America.
But this area rich in biodiversity is in danger. An area that should be protected by the government is falling victim to accelerated deforestation. Forests are being replaced by fields for illicit crops, pastureland for cattle and settlements for hundreds of families that have migrated from other regions searching for new homes. Behind all this, say area residents, are the members of the now-demobilized FARC guerrilla group. They say that former FARC dissidents have taken over much of the territory and are distributing land at will. The civil unrest is reportedly so complex and dangerous that Tinigua park officials had to leave the area for more than a month and start operating from Villavicencio, the capital of Meta.
“Seems like the only tools of the environmental entities are a pen and paper. We cannot do more,” said Oswaldo Avellaneda, Secretary of the Environment of Meta. “This has turned into a security problem which calls for the development of a transverse strategy that starts within the Ministry of Defense. Before, the FARC guerrillas left traces of where they were and the Armed Forces immediately came to look for them. This does not happen anymore.” Avellaneda emphasized that although efforts are being made to stop deforestation, figures show that they are insufficient. In total, it is estimated that Tinigua has already lost some 40,000 hectares – nearly 20 percent – of its forest cover.
Analysis by Global Forest Watch reveals more forest loss in recent months. The organization’s report indicates 7,000 hectares were deforested in Tinigua between February and April 2018. In other words, the park lost more than 3 percent of its tree cover in just three months.
A place of business
Tinigua is a desirable territory. Its value transcends the environmental sphere and, according to Juan Carlos Clavijo, it enters the geopolitical and geoeconomic domain. “It … connects with the capital of the Republic and with the south and east of Colombia. From an economic point of view, the site is surrounded by oil blocks and has the enormous potential of being granted mining titles. From a military standpoint, during the armed conflict, it was the corridor of the FARC.”
Although this territory was a victim of the FARC conflict, it was also a beneficiary. The now-defunct guerrilla group exerted control in the zone and required settlers conform to environmental sustainability norms. They cared for the forest because they saw it as having multiple uses; it could also be used as a hiding place to flee from the Armed Forces. Dago Ramírez, vice president of the Losada Guayabero Environmental Peasant Association, which brings together communities of 68 villages, says that when they created the organization 22 years ago, they had the sole objective of protecting the forest and setting a limit on deforestation – which Ramírez says they achieved with the support of the FARC.
“But since the Peace Agreement was signed [in 2016], we told the National Parks System that from then on it was their responsibility to enforce the Law,” said Ramírez, who has lived on a farm within Tinigua for more than 20 years. “We no longer feel the authority to defend the territory, because they can threaten us. (…) In Los Picachos Park they burned the officials’ cabin a long time ago and those of Tinigua Park had to run away… now imagine us.”
He has good reason to be afraid. Dissidents from the 40th front of the FARC, who are led by someone who goes by the alias “Calarcá”, have invaded Tinigua and planted illicit crops like coca from which cocaine is made. This, say officials, is driving deforestation in the park.
“We fly over the park about twice a week with remotely piloted aircraft and we always discover between two and three new illicit crops. If you multiply that by the months and weeks that have already gone by in the year, it gives us between 60 and 70 crops. (…) As part of the strategy, we provide that information to the Army troops to perform manual eradication,” Colonel Juan Carlos Rueda told Mongabay Latam. Rueda is commander of the air component of the Joint Task Force Omega, a unit of the Military Force that operates in the southeastern part of the country.
Ruega said that so far this year, in compliance with what they called the Tinigua Plan, they have flown for more than 150 hours in order to measure how deforestation activity in and around the park and to identify the location of illicit crops, especially those that are within the protected area. He says that in the first five months of 2018, they eradicated 1,700 hectares of illegal crop cultivation throughout the AMEM and have destroyed 35 laboratories producing cocaine paste. The majority, more than 50 percent, were destroyed within the jurisdiction of Tinigua.
According to Juan Carlos Clavijo, who worked in Tinigua for 10 years, the increase in illegal crops in protected areas may be a consequence of a lack of non-coca livelihoods for people who live in and around the park. “Bring economic alternatives to the inhabitants,” he said. This sentiment is shared by Rueda, who recommends the government implement development projects for community members.
Land and cattle
Part of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and FARC required the redistribution of more than seven million hectares of land, prompting many residents to try to establish farms in new areas. However, finding available arable land has not been easy as 81 percent of the productive land of the country is already in the hands of only one percent of the largest farms, according to the most recent National Agricultural Survey of the National Administrative Department of Statistics. This has left Colombia’s farmers without many options and led them to settle in protected areas.
Delio Franco, president of Asojuntas, an association that brings together the Community Action Boards in the municipality of La Macarena, says that deforestation in Tinigua Park, as well as in other parks, is being caused by the lack of holistic agrarian reform.
“Once the agreement was signed, thousands of families came to these areas to cut trees and look for a parcel of land,” Franco said. “They’ve come from the regions of Chocó, Putumayo, Cauca, Huila, Caquetá, and other parts of Meta; from all over the country. They say they’ve come here in search of a piece of land because they were displaced and everything was taken from them. And since there is no productive land, they have to look inside the parks.”
It is estimated that previously there were around 600 families that have lived inside Tinigua, Picachos and La Macarena, many of whom arrived several decades ago following a wave of violence in the country. However, Franco estimates that number has increased significantly recently, with more than 660 new families arriving in Tinigua alone in the last year. In total he says more than 2,000 families are currently living in the three parks.
“The poor were left without land and that has been the problem,” Franco said. “We are telling the government that we need to sit down at a round table to reestablish long-lasting peace. We need concrete solutions to relocate these people to appropriate places. (…) It is not the villagers’ fault.”
Deforestation can be quite lucrative. Cutting down a hectare of forest can cost about 400,000 pesos (approximately $139), according to Oswaldo Avellaneda, Secretary of the Environment of Meta. But once the land cleared, that same hectare nearly triples in price and can be sold for around than 1.4 million pesos (about $487). Avellaneda believes that this may be attracting the attention of investors and that major mafias could be behind the parks’ current deforestation situation. This claim was supported by other sources who told Mongabay Latam that there are powerful people who are settling people in the parks and encouraging them to clear trees.
“In the end the mafias want to have power over the land because they know they can do with it as they please,” said one resident of La Macarena.
In addition to land speculation, there is also the expansion of the agricultural frontier. Officials from the National Parks System and inhabitants of the area calculate that within Tinigua Park there may be more than 14,000 head of cattle “formally registered.” Mongabay tried to verify this with Luis Humberto Martínez, director of the Colombian Agricultural Institute, but requests for comment were not answered by press time.
Even when cleared, land in Tinigua doesn’t make good cattle pasture, requiring more land per cow than in other areas of Colombia used for ranching, according to Juan Carlos Clavijo, the former chief of Tinigua.
“These soils are not suitable for livestock, but for agroforestry models,” Clavijo said. “It means that the carrying capacity, which is the number of animals that can be held per hectare, is very low. If I want to have one of these animals I need two hectares. So, for a family to have an average rural wage of 900,000 pesos ($312) per month, it would require having at least 400 animals of their own or 200 animals if they share the expenses with another person. It is not cheap.”
Clavijo stressed that currently, due to poor governance after the civil unrest, the cheapest option is to use more land in national parks.
Colonel Rueda added: “Not only should deforestation be associated with illicit cultivation, but also with pasture conversion.”
What to do?
Officials and conservationists worry that the situation could worsen in the coming months. José Yunis, director of Visión Amazonía, one of the initiatives of the Ministry of the Environment to protect forest, explains that when the rain stops, indiscriminate logging will likely start again.
“The rain cycle is what determines everything,” Yunis said. “If there is no plan to control those territories, especially the municipalities of San Vicente del Caguán and Cartagena del Chairá (Caquetá), San José del Guaviare (Guaviare) and La Macarena (Meta), there is nothing. Deforestation rates this year have already been released [and] they are bad; the Ideam reports are already out. Now we have to think about the last trimester – what is the plan to control deforestation in the upcoming months?”
The Secretary of Environment of Meta says that the government and other entities are preparing combat deforestation in the “veranillo of August.” A “veranillo “ is a meteorological phenomenon in which, temporarily, atypical conditions are recorded for a winter month – in this case dry conditions during the rainy season. “We have information that the loggers are already ready to start knocking down next month,” he said.
Sources say it’s necessary that all government institutions work together and that the Ministry of Defense deploys Colombia’s Armed Forces to take control of the territory. They say the effort also requires the support of the country’s Prosecutor Office to promptly legalize any captures made by the military and police.
At the same time, Avellaneda believes that the National Crop Substitution Plan should be further developed so that the villagers have other economic alternatives. According to farmers, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Colombian Agricultural Institute should carry out development projects and set a limit to livestock allowances.
The farmers of the entire La Macarena Special Management Area (AMEM) urgently demand the presence of the government. To this end, on July 6th the members of Asojuntas organized a forum, which about 2,000 people attended, with the objective of discussing environmental and agrarian issues with officials. But while representatives from several agencies and organizations attended the event – including Cormacarena, the municipality of AMEM, the Armed Forces, National Parks and the University of Llano attended the event – the ministries of Agriculture, Internal Affairs and Environment, and the Municipality of Meta were notably absent.
“We do not want another war,” said Delio Franco, president of Asojuntas. “We want the government to sit down to talk with us and understand the problem. We need them here before everything gets worse.”